Belfast Telegraph

First Person: Victoria Geelan

People recall extraordinary events... in their own words

By Stephanie Bell

The 30-year-old Londonderry-based jazz singer has just launched her debut CD Unfit The Picture. She has carved out a burgeoning career although she suffers from poor eyesight due to albinism

My mum Margaret was one of eight girls and all of them were musical. She is a retired music and drama teacher and still organises drama workshops.

One of my earliest memories is of her on stage in Omagh Town Hall in a swimsuit singing the lead role in South Pacific. She was quite an act to follow.

I have wonderful childhood memories of Christmas and all eight girls in my mum's family singing. I just remember the absolute beauty of the music and that was instilled in me at a very young age.

My sister Jessica is also a music teacher and a singer. She is a classically trained soprano and we had a fun childhood singing together.

My mum was a Catholic and my father Denis was a Protestant. I went to a Catholic primary school for a few years, then moved to an integrated primary and then a Protestant secondary school, so I had a very mixed upbringing.

I describe myself as neither a Protestant nor a Catholic.

I think it is fascinating that coming from such a mixed background that I have albinism. For a child to be an albino both parents have to carry the gene, so in my case it was passed on by my parents who came from different communities – what were the chances of them meeting in the first place and also having the same gene?

To me it just shows that none of us know what we are or where we come from, everybody has mixed ancestors. Everyone has their own challenges and because of my albinism I have partial sight in one eye and am legally blind in the other, so once again I'm neither blind nor partially-sighted.

I'm very lucky that I grew up at a time when I had full access to mainstream education and to me that is the key, that's what makes everything possible.

Before I became a jazz singer, I was a member of a psychedelic punk rock band and we had a great time. We played Glasgowbury in November 2008 and then the band imploded.

I then applied for an Arts and Disability Awards Ireland grant to help me buy recording equipment to make my own album.

I was slightly over ambitious as I didn't realise just how much there was to it. I did a course in sound recording but still felt as if I knew nothing. Then in August 2011 I met Ursula Burns at the birthday of a mutual friend in Belfast. She was playing the harp and I asked her could I do a song with her – I'm Feeling Good by Nina Simone.

Afterwards I asked if she would be interested in recording with me. That was two and a half years ago and Unfit the Picture is the result.

The album features eight songs including four originals plus covers of iconic songs from Prince, Jacques Brel and Portishead. I was in the midst of a painful break up at the time. At the risk of sounding clichéd it does make for better art when it's heartfelt.

It wasn't a nasty breakup and he was very helpful with some of the pre-production on the album but he was my first love and so the emotions expressed in the album are real.

My vocal on Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me) is pure and raw because I was really in that situation at the time.

I have never heard an album that is just voice and harp but it creates a space for me to explore my vocal and emotional range.

The material in the album is so diverse and it has really attracted people to it. There aren't too many Northern Ireland singers playing around with different styles and languages.

I studied French and Spanish at university, so I suppose singing in those languages on the albums will make my parents happy as I am using my degree.

Bringing out my first album feels very much like a coming of age. I turned 30 last year and I felt that I really needed to do it before my 30th birthday.

It feels really bizarre to finally be launching it as I have listened to it for two years and played it for friends and family. It is very exciting.

While I am a jazz singer the album is not strictly a jazz.

I think right from the first song, the romantic 1940's noirish Unlikely Valentine, written by Ursula, the CD has an ethereal and otherworldly quality."

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Victoria has performed at the Derry Jazz Festival, as a guest vocalist with Linley Hamilton's band and is a regular performer at Londonderry's new jazz club at Bennigan's Bar.

Victoria will be accompanied by harpist Joleen McLaughlin of the Henry Girls at the launch of Unfit the Picture at Teatro in Belfast on February 13 at 9pm; Sandinos in Derry on February 23 and Bogan's in Omagh on March 16.

To listen to excerpts from Victoria's debut album, go to http://victoriageelan.bandcamp.com/track/canto

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